With the UN Oceans Conference entering its second day, talk in the corridors is still preoccupied with the impact the US decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement will have on the international effort to tackle climate change and bring the world’s ailing marine systems back from the brink of catastrophe.
As Dr. Sylvia Earle, one of the world’s preeminent marine biologists reminded us during a panel she co-hosted with Maldives’ Fisheries Minister, Dr. Mohamed Shainee, the global climate system and the ocean is inextricably connected.
Since the Industrial Revolution, for instance, the ocean has absorbed some 80% of the excess heat captured by greenhouse gas emissions, and has increasingly become more acidic (some 27%). Both impacts take a toll on the marine environment and the consequences are especially problematic for the world’s small island states that are highly dependent on marine based economies.
Most rely almost exclusively on tourism and tuna fishing for the vast majority of their GDP and ocean warming and acidification impacts both. First, warming seas push tuna to cooler latitudes and often out of reach of coastal fishermen. The impacts also almost certainly affect the productivity of fish stocks throughout their life cycle.
At the same time, ocean warming and acidification have led to mass coral bleaching events around the world. Since 2014, corals across the tropical belt have turned bone white as record temperatures cause them to expel the algae that give them their distinctive color. Consecutive bleaching events followed and scientists are worried that parts of the iconic Great Barrier Reef may never fully recover. Reefs are obviously a major draw for tourists and also provide critical habitat for fisheries that commercial and artisanal operations rely on.
Greenhouse gas emissions must come down dramatically if we hope to give corals and fisheries time to recover and adapt to the new conditions, which has made the US decision to exit the Paris Agreement all the more concerning. But in the meantime small islands are taking local action to build resilience in their marine environments: From deploying some of the strictest fishing regulations in the world, to developing a vast expanse of marine protected areas, to building partnerships with NGOS and the private sector, islands are finding innovative solutions to the dual ocean and climate crisis.
But, in the end, as Dr. Earle noted, it will take all of us working together to save it, for we are all connected by and our futures are tied to the same ocean.